Utah's government and educational leaders are saying that over the next nine years the state can develop the premier educational system in the world. Will it?

Teachers attending the Utah Education Association convention have several responses to the possibility: Absolutely no! Unquestionably yes! And (mostly) definitely maybe.Melva Neumeyer, Tooele Central Elementary fourth-grade teacher, said she'd "like to see it happen. But they already put so much on the schools. I have 17 science concepts to cover, plus reading, math and all the rest." She was tacking up sunflowers in a room at the Salt Palace that was already bursting with butterflies, "bug houses" created by Nibley Park Elementary students, paper plate frogs and sections of tree bark.

Several thousand teachers spent Thursday and Friday in special sessions, scouting the huge exhibit hall for classroom ideas or simply re-energizing by chatting with peers.

Positive attitudes needed

Many heard Bert Simmons, guest keynote speaker, give an animated speech with the underlying message that knowledge, while easily obtained, must be combined with positive attitudes that are not so easily obtained, to make teaching a successful career. Teachers must tell students good things about themselves so often "they begin to believe us," he said.

A noontime political rally in front of the Salt Palace gave the educators a red-white-and-blue opportunity to visit with candidates considered friendly to education. Politickers competed with a jazz band bent on making it impossible for anyone to hear anything but jazz.

"Teachers want to know if we will continue what we started last year," said Rep. Glen E. Brown, R-Coalville, one of the glad-handers. "I tell them it was the intent of the Legislature that we were starting on a three-year commitment to education. I see no change in that."Class sizes

One of the primary questions teachers had for Rep. David M. Jones, D-Salt Lake, was how the Legislature hopes to deal with one of the state's leading educational problems - large class sizes.

"We need to use surplus space and more aides to reduce teacher/student ratios," Jones said. "There are those who say large classes don't matter, but I think we'll pay for education now or the effects on the corrections system later. We may have to start looking at taxes."

Students shop downtown

For the downtown stores, the UEA holiday was a bonus. The patter of little feet that usually would be in school was welcome music to merchants.

Jake and Jaime Jensen of Ogden were taking advantage of the free day to spend time with Aunt Diane Low in Salt Lake City. Jaime, enjoying a soft drink while seated on the rim of the Crossroads Plaza fountain, said she liked the holiday but equally enjoys being with friends when she is in class at Uintah Elementary School in Ogden.

Teachers shop at convention

Shopping among the thousands of educational gadgets and gizmos of the exhibition hall was a joint effort for Ken and Belvadean Cottle. He teaches at South Ogden Junior High School, she in the H. Guy Child Elementary.

Ken Cottle sees Utah in a great position to develop a premier school system, with plenty of the raw material of schools - children. "We have the motivation," he said. Both he and his wife "chose to be teachers," he said. "It wasn't something we just settled on." The skills they have developed have been helpful in rearing their own five children.

Educational challenges

Belvadean Cottle is concerned that teachers have more demand today to compete with the slick television programs and other entertainments children see. "It puts pressure on the schools to keep pace." Belvadean Cottle also saw a challenge in building a super-system in Utah unless parents help. "Teachers can't do it alone," she said.

Brian Walker saw the challenge from the perspective of a school counselor. In the state's Shift in Focus document, he noted, the concept of an ideal school includes one counselor for 100 students. At Crescent View Middle School, he deals with many times that number. "We're light years away from the ideal," he said. Any significant improvements in education will evolve from the collaborative efforts of teachers, government, parents and businesses, he said.

UEA President Lily Eskelsen was among those exuding confidence that Utah can, in fact, become the world leader in education. "We have flown to the moon," she told her followers. "We landed and came back." Vision, coupled with planning, can pull it off, she said as teachers replenished their personal cups and prepared to return to today's challenging classrooms.